Mildred Cohn’s pioneering use of NMR for the study of enzyme reactions led to her receiving the National Medal of Science.
Overcoming gender and religious prejudice, Mildred Cohn worked alongside four Nobel laureates, won numerous awards and established an entire field of research.
Early life and obstacles
Mildred Cohn was born in 1913 in New York’s Bronx borough. Her parents had emigrated from Russia to the United States a few years earlier and were passionate about the education of their children. A naturally gifted student, Mildred graduated from high school when she was 14 years old before opting to study chemistry at Hunter College in Manhattan, which was free and accepted women of all religious and racial backgrounds. Whilst studying at the all-women’s college, one of her teachers told her it was ‘unladylike’ for women to become chemists. Despite having to combat attitudes such as this, Mildred graduated with distinction in 1931.
Upon finishing her Bachelor’s degree, Mildred was determined to pursue a post-graduate education. Whilst she was able to afford a single year at Columbia University, she was ineligible to work as a teaching assistant due to the fact that she was a woman. Leaving the university due to a lack of funds, Mildred moved to Virginia to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – a government aeronautics laboratory and forerunner to NASA. During her time here, she was the only woman working alongside 70 men. She was informed that she would never be promoted. By 1934 Mildred had saved up enough money to return to Columbia to carry out her doctoral studies under the supervision of Harold Urey, who had won the Nobel Prize that same year. She submitted her Ph.D. thesis on the behaviour of isotopes of oxygen in 1938.
After completing her doctorate Mildred searched for jobs as an industrial chemist, but she often found that large companies would specifically advertise for male, Christian applicants – problematic for a young Jewish woman. She eventually landed a research position in the laboratory of future Nobel laureate Vincent du Vigneaud at Washington University in St Louis. Working here, Mildred pioneered the use of isotopic labelling to track the metabolism of sulphur-containing compounds in mammalian cells.
When de Vigneaud moved his laboratory to Cornell University, Mildred moved with him, but she returned to Washington University in 1946 to take a job with Carl and Gerty Cori, who would win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine the following year. In this role she was given the freedom to choose her own research projects. She used isotopic labelling to investigate the chemistry of organophosphate molecules and pioneered the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to explore the behaviour of enzymes and other proteins during chemical reactions in the body. Her research on the structure and activity of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – a molecule that transports chemical energy within cells – has impacted on a wide range of different fields, including neuroscience and biotechnology and the techniques that she employed are widely used today to study biochemical processes at a molecular level.
Leading the way for women in science
Mildred Cohn famously stated that she didn’t intend to be an assistant for the rest of her life, so she started an entirely new field of research and more than 20 years after completing her doctorate she was appointed as a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania in 1961. Over the course of her career Mildred overcame countless obstacles that that she faced on account of her gender and achieved several gender firsts, including becoming the first woman to sit on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, where she was editor for ten years, serving as the first female president of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and being the first woman to receive the American Heart Association’s Lifetime Career Award. She retired in 1982 and before she passed away in 2009 she continued to receive recognition and awards for her pioneering work, including Columbia University’s Chandler Medal, nine honorary doctorates, the National Medal of Science and being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
Words by Jamie Durrani
Images courtesy of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Photograph by Douglas A Lockard
Published January 2016